Celebrating their 25th year as a band with the release of an album called Popular Songs can be slightly misleading. Yo La Tengo isn’t a band acknowledging their legacy, their evolving yet intensely loyal following, or a place in the road to plant their well-documented indie rock godfather signpost. Instead, the trio, consisting of singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan, his wife, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley, and bassist/vocalist James McNew, continues to write amazingly memorable hooks while veering off into the occasional long ass noisy jam over a repetitive drone.
On their latest work, their first since 2006’s delightfully varied I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, nothing new is offered, and no fresh ground is really covered. But what Yo La Tengo does offer are nine succinct songs that are probably better than most songs you’ll hear this year by their legions of indie imitators. YLT has made sure that, even if their tongue is firmly planted in their collective cheek in reference to their album title, they’ve pretty much brought the cream to the surface here. Oh, and there are three extended ambient/dirge/mindfuck pieces that each have a very subtle series of transitions that defy definition even after several spins.
On the initial nine tunes, the band begins the album’s journey with a confident statement of purpose (“Here to Fall”), a couple of Hubley-led ear candies (“Avalon or Someone Very Similar” and “By Two’s”—the latter foreshadowing the closing dirge-like motif), a rousing whiplash monster solidifying their garage rock origins (“Nothing to Hide”), a slice of ’60s hipsterism with a cool thrice-sliced organ in the middle of the cut (“Periodically Double or Triple”), a bit of duet-laced Motown (“If It’s True”), a beautiful Sunday stroll through the park with the shadow of a lover (“I’m On My Way”), a subtle echo of salsa-shuffle beat, YLT-tweaked, whilst dwelling in a melancholic acoustic sunset (“When It’s Dark”), and the end result itself, an organ-led two-step that whispers its soft message while betraying nothing of its complex intent (“All Your Secrets”). Deep and magical, the short-tune medley comes to an end with nary a note of excess.
And lest one thinks that YLT is all about maturity, well-crafted little pop rock gems with nifty time signatures and occasional weird moments thrown in for old time’s sake, the aforementioned trio of lengthier tracks quickly reminds the listener of another great gift. The first of the trio—“More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”—is an elusive wanderer which begins with a basic guitar-strummed melody riding atop a subtext filled with softly-strummed and tapped bass and drums. The rhythm of the predominant guitar is addictive, and yet one can also get lost in the looping arc of vocals, dipping and surfacing in unison to the patient roll of the music. Majestic yet humble, t’is a beaut.
“The Fireside” follows, and it’s more difficult to penetrate. That may be the point. Initially, a murky slice of ambient space with only a softly-strummed acoustic as its guide, the song eventually peaks with vocals 6, 7 minutes into it’s 11-minute length, but even that does not help wipe away the clouds surrounding this…well, yes, session by the fireside that is either impenetrable, intentionally obtuse, or a continually fascinating adventure with headphones.
“And the Glitter is Gone” closes the temporally-lengthy trio, and album, in an absolutely loud and noisy and repetitive way that also shoves numerous layers of glorious crunch back and forth over a consistently-charging rhythm section. This is Yo La Tengo in their other element—either 25 years into the career and still wanting to prove their mettle (uh, probably not), or Ira Kaplan can still stand next to an amplifier and wail on the guitar when he bloody well wants (yeah, maybe). If there was a smidgen of a doubt that YLT is going to head down the road towards middle-aged passivity, that notion is quickly dispelled with this tune (for now, at least).
Yo La Tengo is more than happy just to bang away over a hard, primal anti-melody, racing through the noise, shifting its momentum, and building on the riff, making more noise, having fun, plowing forward, engaging each other in a particular moment, and then making more noise. The 15-minute tightly-loose track is a stout coda to an album that is deceptively simple, and, yet, already containing a classic aura that puts their work above so many of their offspring—seasoned peers, noise rawk poseurs, or otherwise.